Hans the Irrelevant

The Wall Street Journal
January 28, 2003, p. A16.

Imagine this: Hans Blix, the 74-year-old Swedish lawyer who now serves as chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, after drawing himself up to his full height, declares: “I’m not taking it anymore.”

After being fooled in the 1980s (when Saddam ran a secret A-bomb program under the noses of Mr. Blix’s inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency) and fooled again in the 1990s (when Saddam destroyed entire buildings to hide evidence of bomb making) and then brushed off last month when Saddam’s minions handed Mr. Blix a 12,000-page report in which none of his questions were answered – it would be normal to be upset and even, maybe, to reach for Saddam’s throat.

Yet, Mr. Blix, an infinitely patient international civil servant, could never bring himself to do so – at least consciously. But yesterday, in an extraordinary report to the United Nations, he did so unconsciously. In the most careful, lawyerly fashion, Mr. Blix unwittingly demonstrated that his efforts are leading nowhere, and that his mission is essentially over.

He did not, of course, say that in so many words. At first, he congratulated the Iraqis for their cooperation on “process”: “It would appear from our experience so far that Iraq has decided in principle to provide cooperation on process, notably access. A similar decision is indispensable to provide cooperation on substance in order to bring the disarmament task to completion, through the peaceful process of inspection, and to bring the monitoring task on a firm course.”

All lawyers (Mr. Blix is a lawyer) know the difference between process and substance. By “process” he meant letting U.N. inspectors tour some 230 suspected weapon sites, almost all of which had been visited already by previous groups of inspectors. By “substance” he meant real disarmament, toward which he had to admit that the Iraqis still have done virtually nothing.

“One might have expected,” Mr. Blix wrote, that Iraq would have explained the following:

– Evidence that it had tried to put VX, the deadliest form of nerve gas, into weapon-usable form.

– One thousand tons of poison gas contained in 6,500 missing chemical bombs.

– Several thousand missing rocket warheads for carrying poison gas.

– Some 8,500 missing liters of anthrax and enough growth media to produce 5,000 liters more.

– The illegal import of 300 rocket engines and other components for ballistic missiles.

– Illegal tests of long-range missiles that Iraq is not supposed to possess.

– Three-thousand pages of undeclared documents on the enrichment of uranium at the home of an Iraqi nuclear-weapon scientist.

This is a terrifying list of destructive potential to leave in the hands of someone like Saddam Hussein. Failing to account for it is a lack of cooperation on “substance,” and surely a material breach of Iraq’s obligations. But Mr. Blix is unable to say so. The report deliberately avoids taking any position on this point. The implication, however, is clear: With no progress on substance – that is, disarmament – the cooperation on process is irrelevant.

Mr. Blix’s only prescription for solving this problem is to give the inspections more time. But that makes no sense in light of what he has reported. It is, the U.N. chief inspector says, the lack of a decision by the Iraqi government to disarm that is the stumbling block. “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it.”

Making a decision doesn’t take long, especially in a dictatorship. Giving the inspectors more time has nothing to do with complying with U.N. Resolution 1441. The truth is that Mr. Blix’s mission so far has not produced any progress toward disarmament, and is not likely to do so in the future.

What, then, can we expect to happen next? If the inspectors find more evidence that Saddam is lying – more evidence of hidden warheads or illegal imports, for example – it will only prove more clearly that disarmament isn’t taking place. Obviously, this has nothing to do with achieving the peaceful disarmament Mr. Blix hopes to achieve. On the other hand, if the inspectors fail to find more evidence, that will not prove that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction as long as Saddam refused to account for the frightening list of missing items.

The only hope for inspections now is the last-minute conversion of Saddam Hussein. If troops begin massing on his border, there is a slim chance that Saddam will start answering Mr. Blix’s questions. There is even less of a chance that Saddam will then begin to transparently disarm. But if he does, the “process” will be unmistakable. The world would then see Iraq behaving like South Africa when it revealed its entire nuclear-weapons program after its government changed; and as Argentina and Brazil did when they decided to become part of the solution to the proliferation problem rather than part of the cause; and as Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan did when they decided that nuclear weapons were not worth the cost of their keeping.

If that time should ever come, Mr. Blix may have a useful role to play. Then he could verify that disarmament was happening, as inspections are supposed to do, rather than trying to create disarmament, which inspections cannot do. In the meantime, however, he should admit what he has so ably proved in his report: His mission has been completed.

Mr. Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.